Recollection: the experience of a Catholic student in an Anglican service

WARNING: This post contains doctrinal differences. If you are not willing to take the risk to read and ask questions thereafter, kindly skip this post.
IT WAS after New Year’s Day mass at noon that I returned to my room in Chapman Hall in the College Lane Campus of the University of Hertfordshire. I was posting visual material from my Christmas gathering and my visit to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. Soon after, I received a call from my aunt, saying that she and my uncle were coming to pick me up. My heart began to pound. I knew that they were Anglican in their beliefs, and they knew that I was Roman Catholic, but it was not until I came to their place, opened my PC, switched Twitter on, found out my locale and researched it that I could not find a single Catholic parish in Rochford, Essex. I later found out that I was wrong, but at the time, the view stood.
At that very moment, my heart sank.
I did not know what to ask them. I didn’t have the heart to ask them anything. I was scared too – very scared, in fact. In desperation I called one of my friends, but to no avail – and immediately after that, I went on Facebook to find out if anyone of them had the number of the oldest of my friends, Damian Ryan, who is also one of my advisors on the faith. I was then told by another one of my friends and advisors, Peter Murphy, that Damian was attending mass at the time and could not respond. I asked him, therefore, and I told him my situation. He told me to take courage, and I made up my mind to take this to confession. And a few times throughout the day I was praying for strength to face what I would have deemed to be an ordeal by fire if it weren’t for the support that I had received from my friends by the grace of God. I do know that this fear was genuine.

We left for service at 5. It was to begin at 6. The church was St Laurence and All Saints. It was built about a thousand years ago, and the origins of that parish church were unknown. The size of it was about the size of St Peter’s in Hatfield.
I went in, realising that I wouldn’t be able to make the sign of the cross before I made my way to the pews. Everyone else just went in and took their seats; I naturally genuflected, but I still wondered if there was a tabernacle in the area. I doubted it. No one was kneeling in prayer. Whilst the crowd seemed loving and friendly (that, I shall neither argue nor comment on it), quite a bit of noise was made… and I didn’t know what to make of it. I felt a burning need for that quiet time for reflection and prayer. In the midst of the chatting and laughing I muttered prayers under my breath, asking for strength, asking for guidance from the Lord, asking for intercession from Mary and the saints.
I remembered that during the beginning of the academic year, the Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire organised a walking tour of Catholic London. We learned why streets and places were named as they are today, we learned about the struggles people faced in living their faith, particularly during the Reformation, the things the Church of England stripped away in annexing numerous parish churches across London (and ultimately, across England)… and we even went on a journey which began at Westminster Abbey and ended at Tyburn, where priests, religious and laymen were tried, convicted and hanged, drawn and quartered for living their faith. My mind wandered… I began to think about the things and the deeds that were stripped away. I was looking for traces of the evidently Catholic origin of the church (considering it was several hundred, close to a thousand years old), and practically all that rested were these: an icon behind the altar which referenced a Biblical event which I could not point my finger on, and the stained-glass windows, one of which made a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mother, Mary. When I read the history of the church a little more, I found out that there was an insignia in Latin, which was almost completely defaced, which translated to something along the lines of “Peace be to all who enter and to all who go out.” We naturally need reminders of things, of events, of the glories that have won us our civilisations, our families, our districts and counties, and most importantly, our faith. This explains the representations of Biblical texts in art – no doubt, they are made by human hands, but they are made in love. The user of images in Christianity has been further justified by the fact that Christ Jesus came to us with a human body — and he is an image of his Father in heaven, therefore abolishing the rule about images. In a 16th century account about what took place during the Reformation, which was read to us by Fr Mark Vickers during our tour of London, I learned that the supporters of the Reformation considered us to be idol-worshippers. That wasn’t the case, and never will be. Because today, I was seeking for a reminder that I was not alone, and just being there felt unnatural.
What jolted me even more was that the priest, or vicar, or whatever the correct term was, was a woman.
Now I am an ardent feminist, and I uphold the view that women are emancipating themselves and deserve to be treated as the equals of their male counterparts. I am also aware that personalities are different. Yet, the natural law kicks in again. Men assert; women nurture. Though we all cannot play the same role in the faith, our roles are unique. It is the assertion and extrinsically determined nature of the man that allows him to minister, address the people, anoint the sick, administer the Sacraments, come to families’ beck and call, reconcile others, perform the last rites, baptise a new-born baby, cast out demons – all while maintaining decorum. Some may argue that it is personality-based, but let’s face it: I am doing a law degree, I can speak; I can bring forward points and make people think. This is not enough for the role of the priest, the “fisher of men” as Christ Jesus puts it. If I or any other girl were to face all this in the course of a week, if not a day, we would all break down. A nun, on the other hand, would be more than willing to jump for joy, take a person in her embrace and talk to him in a way that only a mother or a sister would. Men sow the seeds, and women bear the fruits. It is a natural tendency in every plant and animal. There’s a reason why we call our priests “Father” and the nuns “Mother” and “Sisters”: it boils back to the natural tendencies we all have.

The service proper
Six o’clock. The service began. I passed the unfamiliar hymns and looked at the wording for the service order, which was quite different. There was evident separation between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but again, there was not much of an air of reverence, the awareness of the very presence of Christ Jesus. It’s understandable that people can get casual with each other when they meet up, but not during prayer time. Point is, we need to get serious with God because it’s our lives we’re talking about. Our faith is meant to be an essence of our lives. For some reason, I felt this rule was bent several times. The vicar gave random comments on the hymns when we were about to sing them. There was no kneeling when the host and chalice were lifted up. The vicar was the only person who made the sign of the cross, and that was right before she delivered the homily. At that moment I really began to question why the congregation could not partake in the making of the sign of the cross, when it should in fact be a universal symbol and invocation to us.
Then it was time for Communion. My heart felt so heavy for missing Sunday mass but I knew that I couldn’t go either way. I still felt guilty nonetheless. I told myself I was unworthy to receive Communion, so I simply settled for the blessing. I really did not know what to think……
When it ended, I had this feeling in my heart and mind: it was a watered-down version of a Sunday mass with much of its significance having been stripped off. I was bitter about the whole thing, to say the very least. At that point in time I told myself, THAT’S IT. I am returning to St Peter’s immediately when I come back to Hatfield.

After service
My aunt saw the sad look on my face and asked me what the matter was. I imagined it would take a few days for me to explain the whole situation to her, what with our doctrinal differences. But there I was, in an awkward moment where I was expected to tell her in my own time, but within that hour, those few minutes. After I had told her, in my weak choice of words, what I had felt, the answer I got was that our services are bound to be different. She was aware that it wasn’t as “uplifting”.
I maintained my decorum and shortly after my aunt and uncle retired to bed, I went to the bedroom for prayer time. And when I went in, I got on the bed and burst into tears. Never had I found it so difficult to express what I felt inside.
I would be more than willing to reconcile Catholics, Anglicans and what have you under one holy, Catholic and apostolic church (as is the mission of Pope Benedict XVI and thousands of clergy and laymen) by bringing to light the similarities that we have, the essence of our faith: that God is Triune, i.e. that there are three Persons in one God – if I were good enough with words like Fr Mark Vickers. But I am aware that I am not, and my recollections come back to me better in writing than in speech. It is in writing this recollection of 2nd January 2011 that I pour out my heartfelt sorrows over the state of affairs today, which came about half a century ago. The faith of our fathers, the faith of our ancestors, has always been the Catholic Christian faith. The faith of the apostles is the same faith we share today. If they had come to the world and seen what was going on with the many different denominations calling themselves united and reformed, they would shake their heads in utter disbelief. I imagine that if I had lived in London or Hertfordshire during the Reformation, I would have been tried, convicted and killed for wanting to live out my faith.
If there was something I was looking for, it had to be the fullness achieved in Christ. I do not search to be “uplifted”. Mass to me and to most, if not all churchgoers, is not an emotional opiate, where we expect to feel restored or rejuvenated. Many times in the past I have had difficulties praying, even during mass. This was because whenever I invoked the name of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, swearwords popped into my mind and it was because of this that I found it difficult to go on. I have always held mass dear to my heart, particularly in recent times. My days in Stonyhurst explained why: it is because mass is the highest prayer of Christ, where He offers himself to us at the altar. Mass is the favourite devotion of many saints. When I enter the church for Sunday or weekday masses, I, like many other churchgoers, am made aware of the presence of God, the presence of Christ in church and among us. This awareness is reflected fully during the order of the mass and whatever else goes on at the altar, at the lectern and at the pew. I did not see this awareness today at all. My thirst for His presence was not quenched.
The next day, we took a drive to Southend-at-Sea, which was one of the principal towns of the district… and I couldn’t find any Roman Catholic parishes there either.
I am nearing the end of this recollection and my heart feels very heavy.
Kyrie, ignis divine, Dei misericordii, eleison.


Post a Comment